Fernando Vázquez has been out of football since 2007, but his arrival at troubled Deportivo might spark their revival
Fernando Vázquez says he didn't miss football but football missed him. From Lalín to Ferrol, from Lugo to Compostela, from Oviedo to Mallorca to Betis and beyond, he spent 20 years coaching, racking up 11 clubs, a fixture on first division benches except that, if there was one thing you could be sure of, it was that he would never be fixed to a bench. Instead, he became famous for his touchline runs, punching the air and skipping along, joy unbound: think that David Pleat moment only more excited and much, much more often. He was one of the most recognisable figures in the Spanish game, one of those men who had been around and was always around. And then one day, he walked away and didn't come back.
If Vázquez looks like a bit of a school teacher, that is because he was. He never made it as a player and, although he got a degree in German, he taught English in a school before he became a coach. Inevitably, they called him el profesor. Short, boyish and with specs, he eventually got the equally inevitable nickname of Harry Potter, one newspaper even scorching a photographic thunderbolt on to his forehead. He had long since got a reputation for the pitchside performances, a small figure dashing up the touchline and leaping into people's arms. "I only did it with the big goals but, the thing is, to start with they were all big goals," he protested.
He read Sacchi and Sun Tzu, describing coaching as a constant battle between the mind of the coach and the minds of the players. But it did not always work: if he got employed a lot, he got sacked a lot too. There were relegations and resentment. He took Celta up to the First Division, then to a Uefa Cup place and was sacked the following April. By the end of his time there, he couldn't face going to war any more. So he didn't. It was 2007.
For six years he was away. Gone. As he put it, he didn't feel strong enough to face a dressing room any more. He also admitted that he switched off and started to drift. Just the odd spot of commentary, Champions League games on Galician TV, nothing too strenuous, happy to be away from it all. But something was missing and he grew irritated with himself for letting go, for slipping into something a little more comfortable. He began preparing to compete in a triathlon at the age of 58. "Then," he said, "a call at one o'clock in the morning changed my life."
On the other end was Deportivo de La Coruña's president, Augusto César Lendoiro. It was 12 February and his club was in crisis. They needed rescuing. The administrators were in and their reports made for revealing reading: like the fact that the debt with the tax man was twice what Lendoiro said it was – and he already said it was over €40m. Not long after, they would call for Lendoiro to leave. Things were not much better on the pitch. Deportivo were bottom, facing a second relegation in three seasons. And they weren't going to avoid that with the current coach, abdicating almost as soon as he took the crown.
Deportivo's manager was a Portuguese coach called Domingos Paciência, which is Spanish for Sundays Patience but there was little patience and he had run out of Sundays. He had tried to resign once and failed; this time they let him. Depor were about to employ a third coach in the same season for the first time since 1988, just before Lendoiro took over, when a 94th minute goal on the final day rescued them from relegation from the Second Division. Three coaches was as many in one season as they had had in the previous seven; the crisis revealed. Vázquez, the man who last managed Deportivo's rivals but who had been born in La Coruña and was a Depor fan, was the choice. Largely forgotten, Harry Potter, the professor, was back at last. Out of the blue.
The key was mentality and atmosphere; they were a lost cause but they could not think that. This time, he was ready to face a dressing room, to try to motivate them. Right from the start he admitted that this was not so much a tactical task as a mental one, and one that involved everyone. During training one day soon after arriving, Vázquez approached supporters watching the session from the stands and asked them what they thought. Not so much because he really wanted to know but because he wanted them to feel asked, participants once more. "We need to win eight games," he said. And then he said that they could, even though they had only won three all season. When Depor travelled to Mallorca last weekend, Gregorio Manzano welcomed the coach back, the two current managers with the most games in La Liga, by whispering in his ear: "you're a dreamer."
To start with, it didn't work. Vázquez's first four games ran: lose, lose, draw, lose. But then the three defeats were against Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona and next up were the direct clashes with their relegation rivals: Celta, Mallorca and Zaragoza. Something else had changed too: their situation had got even worse and yet, oddly, it might have got better. "When you have got nothing to lose, you risk everything," Vázquez said. And, simplistic though it sounds, that pretty much summed it up.
First they beat a tense, edgy and ultimately suicidal Celta de Vigo in the Galician derby at a jam-packed Riazor; then they defeated Mallorca in Palma, 500 fans giving the team bus a guard of honour as it returned to Coruña; then on Saturday they faced Real Zaragoza – last year's miracle team, this year's disaster . Three direct rivals in a row. Each match another obstacle in which a solitary fall could prove fatal. This was, one newspaper announced, "the hour of truth". As the team bus drew up, hundreds of fans lined the streets by Riazor, blue flags everywhere, scarves and shirts. "Sí, se puede!" they chanted ("Yes, we can!").
"It was us who invented that, last year," Zaragoza's coach, Manolo Jiménez, had complained before the game and although he had clearly forgotten all about that Obama bloke, he sort of had a point: Zaragoza's miracle war cry has been adopted by Depor. Their momentum too. As he got off the bus, Jiménez blew a kiss and headed inside. Outside it got a bit heated, trouble flared; inside, it was packed once again. And then it began. And when it began it was much like the previous two games. In short, a bit bonkers: 1-0 to Depor, 1-1, 2-1 to Zaragoza, 2-2, 3-2 to Depor. The first Zaragoza goal was a gift and so was the second –a daft penalty followed by a giveaway – while Depor's third was an own goal. But it was more about the overall sense of a game out of control. An open coffin, as the Spanish phrase has it.
"It wasn't a great technical game," said Vázquez, "but it was a game full of hope, faith and emotion." It was also a game that had Abel Aguilar, unstoppable in the air, and Bruno Gama, who scored a nice first. Plus Juan Carlos Valerón, still providing glorious assists, a moment's pause in the midst of the madness, opponents skidding by as he puts the brakes on, at 37; what technique there was, was his.
There is also something symbolic in his return to the side, a message in his inclusion: Valerón had not played in 2013 but under Vázquez he has played six times this year: in 2-1 and 2-0 defeats against Madrid and Barcelona respectively, the draw with Rayo Vallecano and the last three consecutive victories. "When you have nothing, you risk everything." You attack, you don't protect. One point is worthless, three can change everything. Depor went for it and the last three games, mostly wild, mostly open, and against direct rivals, have seen three consecutive wins. Three consecutive three-goal performances as well: two 3-2s and a 3-1. Hell, in the last two games Carlos Marchena has scored. That's Carlos Marchena the defender who has averaged less than a goal a season over his career and who had never before scored two in a row.
Last weekend was the first time that Deportivo had won two in a row this season; this weekend was the first time they had won three in a row in the First Division for almost four years. And against direct rivals too. Six pointers? That'll be 18 points, then. And hope. When Vázquez arrived there was none. Now that Sí, se puede feels real. They really can. "We were almost dead, now we see a bit of light," Valerón said. All the more so because Celta, Mallorca and Granada were all beaten: Mallorca and Granada conceded five, Celta could have done. No wonder Aythami called it "a perfect day." For the first time in 10 weeks, Depor are off the bottom. They have climbed above Mallorca and Celta and are just one point off Zaragoza, two off Granada and five from Osasuna.
"We're still the last cyclist in the peloton, but we're right up on the tyres of the rest of the pack. It starts here, from zero, and it's all about who has the best sprint finish," Vázquez said, mixing his metaphors marvellously. "We're out of intensive care and up on the ward now. They've taken us off the life support machine and we're breathing for ourselves at last."
• Four hundred and two days later, Eric Abidal is back. With 20 minutes to go he replaced Gerard Piqué, returning to action after suffering cancer and undergoing a liver transplant. This was the image of the season, powerful and symbolic. As Piqué came across the pitch, Abidal stood and prayed. The Camp Nou stood to applaud when the pair embraced and then roared when Abidal ran on. Before that, a final word of encouragement from Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach, who has just returned from chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the US. Under his shirt Abidal wore a vest that expressed his gratitude to the donor who made the transplant possible. It said: "thank you my cousin." Afterwards he added simply, starkly: "Without him I wouldn't be here." Every touch was applauded, every moment enjoyed. "This is a happy day for all of us," said Jordi Roura. Welcome back.
• As for the football, Cesc Fábregas played the Messi role. He was Barcelona's false No9 for the day … and scored a hat-trick.
• Woof! Gonzalo Higuaín scored a beauty. Which is more than can be said for Ban Ki-Moon, who took the honorary kick-off at the Santiago Bernabéu (because he's got loads to do with Real Madrid, like) and nearly fell flat on his face. Madrid actually went one down but ended up winning 5-1, three of them in the last seven minutes.
• Getafe-Atlético … erm, next! Mind you, in the absence of goals, Diego Costa continues to be good value.
• If Barcelona and Madrid were thinking of Europe and still scored five, Málaga were thinking of Europe and conceded four against Real Sociedad. La Real now have a four-point lead in the final Champions League place and they were impressive. Again.
Results: Granada 1-5 Betis, Real Sociedad 4-2 Málaga, Real Madrid 5-1 Levante, Deportivo 3-2 Zaragoza, Barcelona 5-0 Mallorca, Celta 0-2 Rayo, Osasuna 0-2 Espanyol, Getafe 0-0 Atlético, Valencia 2-1 Valladolid. Monday: Sevilla-Athletic.